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There Were Leaders, Once

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Oh boy, what a mess we are in! The United Kingdom could lose Scotland in 2014. The sectarian division in Northern Ireland has reasserted itself. The United Kingdom Independence Party is attracting a serious number of votes. The Conservative Party remains split around Britain's relationship with Europe. The Labour Party wants a referendum on the subject - sort of. The Liberal Party, consistent in its view that Britain should remain a full member of the European Union, is being eviscerated in the nation's media and opinion polls. Britain's finances are a mess. Its growth is derisory. And its military is grossly over-stretched following interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and now Mali, each under the pretext of teaching those sovereign states how to order their affairs.

With undisguised glee, political pundits in the media point to the economic misery unfolding in Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain and shout alleluia, how wise we were not to join the Euro. In the Financial Times recently, Wolfgang M√ľnchau pointed out that by deciding to stay out of the Euro, Britain's then leaders had excluded their country from the process of European integration which was always necessary to make the Euro work. It matters not a jot, the Euro-skeptics holler. All we want, they say, is to belong to a free market, as Canada and the United States do inside NAFTA. Continental Europe will not deny us that. Its citizens need our trade us much as we need theirs. Decades ago, William Waldegrave (an honest politician who thought about things and said what he thought) put it quite simply. If the question, he posited, came down to being part of a European super-state or just being a friendly neighbour as Canada is to the United States, then his preference was to be like Canada. A pleasant enough thought, for sure, but a wholly unrealistic one.

Get out the map and dust off the history books. Britain IS part of Europe. Since the Roman and Norman invasions, its politics have been our politics. Yes, our island status has spared us some of the continent's misery, but its ideas - be they those of Ancient Greece, imperial Rome, Catholic Spain, the Protestant north, or revolutionary France have wafted across the channel with the ease of a summer breeze. And the traffic has not been one way. We have spilled blood in every corner of Europe, lots of it, as we have sought to defend our perceived interests, and not just now and again, but in every century of our recorded history. If warfare is a rough form of politics, to imagine that we can sit happily on the sidelines, immune to the politics being played out next to us, is utter folly.

Yes, parts of Europe are ugly at present because the evolution of Europe's structures has been held back by nationalist agendas and weak governance. But behind it all there was a vision and that vision was good. I want my children and grandchildren to live in a Europe free of war and strong enough to protect them. I want them to be able to travel to any part of it, without border checks, to seek out work or to enjoy the rich cultural heritage which is theirs by right. I want them to learn a European language, besides their own. I want them to be Europeans first. I want them to be proud of the power - cultural and economic - that Europe is capable of marshalling and to use it for the good of themselves and others. When early Americans were struggling to find their way they had leaders who dreamed of a great city on a hill which they would one day build. Where are those leaders now?